Finding myself home alone for a long weekend, I was determined to play as much of Miles Davis albums from my collection as time would permit. There was not enough time to hear all 42 titles. Which was fine since many of these albums are played frequently, with Jack Johnson, Seven Steps to Heaven and Miles Ahead at the top of my usual playlists. This allowed me to focus on CDs that had not been heard in a long time. For the half-dozen albums that contain two, or more, CD’s I just played the first disc. That list included Circle in the Round, Agharta, Big Fun and the Bootleg Sessions.
The experiment was a raging success and there will be some changes to the usual suspects that end up in my car and office over the next few months. For today’s Jazz-Notes I’m going to make some observations, many likely to be inflammatory for hardcore fans.
A Journey into the Miles Davis Albums
The best surprises were two of Miles Davis albums separated by thirty years; Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants that included recording sessions from 1954 and 1956, and Tutu from 1986. We’ll start with Jazz Giants since it needs some context. There are, in fact, two albums with this name, both released by Prestige and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder. The first was recorded during two separate sessions in 1954 and ultimately titled Bags Groove (though the actual song title is Bags’ Groove) with Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. A reissue in 1987 included multiple takes of Bags’ Groove and But Not For Me. A terrific album, but less impressive than the album released in 1956 with cuts from one of the 1954 sessions and another from 1956. It was remastered in 2008 by Rudy Van Gelder.
Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants provided an unexpected jolt. As happened often over the weekend, a song would pop out and send me to the liner notes. Here the line-up on a single tune, ‘Round Midnight, was John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones. The difference between the sound of the earlier session in December of 1954 and the ‘Round Midnight session of 1956 was incredible. If there was ever a question regarding Miles ability to evolve intelligently, it is answered by this album. The journey to Kind of Blue seems inevitable.
Surprises from the Miles Davis Collection
Tutu, on the other hand, is more about the destination than the journey. Having played this early in the listening session, and being so impressed that it was the only album getting a repeat during the weekend, it was clear how this music resolved problems with songs during that difficult transition period post-Bitches Brew. Specifically, the wildly uneven album The Man With the Horn saw some of its best moments finally realized on Tutu. With Marcus Miller as the undisputed sideman on this CD (with props to George Duke), we have a masterwork of jazz featuring brilliant elements of funk and fusion. And the striking photography of Irving Penn is a breathtaking bonus.
Another surprising contrast was the live album Agharta followed by Porgy and Bess. Recorded in 1975 during an appearance in Japan, Agharta defines the crazy shit Miles was doing with percussionist Mtume and guitar great Pete Cosey. For critics of Bitches Brew, this had to be the ultimate insult. In fairness, Miles was dealing with some serious health issues at this time which had to have influenced his performance. But this album, which I enjoyed again immensely, is an acquired taste and challenging piece of work.
Porgy and Bess was just a great listen, and a gentle reminder that Miles wasn’t selling-out anything by covering Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper thirty years later. Being one of the best-selling of Miles Davis albums; Gil Evans does a yeoman’s job in scoring and directing a full orchestra in support of Miles’ rendition of this Gershwin classic. Show tunes have never sounded better.
An Outlier and a Touching Finale of the Journey
A light also needs to be shined on another outlier from the collection of Miles Davis albums, Ascenseur pour l’echafaud was the soundtrack from a movie made in 1957. There are twenty-six cuts on this album with all but four lasting less than 3-minutes each. Ultimately, ten of these improvisational works were edited to create the soundtrack for a movie by French director Louis Malle. A beautiful, haunting album sounding very much like a single song, it makes anywhere at any time become 2:00 am in a sketchy jazz bar near the wrong part of town. Every time I hear this CD I wonder why I don’t play it more often.
All of the live Miles Davis albums were disappointing. Setting aside the quality of the actual recordings, which varied across a nearly inconceivable range from really good to truly terrible, there was something missing in these CDs. For all the grief Miles has received about turning his back on the audience or wandering off the stage during sideman solos, I have always enjoyed watching his concert footage, and do frequently. Today I watched a 1988 performance of Tutu from a short-lived TV show hosted by David Sanborn that was terrific. But the live recordings felt disjointed and seemed to be missing some element to give the performance the intensity of recording sessions. Hard to explain, but play the concert My Funny Valentine adjacent to Miles Stones, and think about this missing link.
In A Silent Way and Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux played as I wrote this summary. The first of these two albums saw the final break for Miles from his storied past as he moved into the new world of jazz fusion, and like Jazz Giants is a magical example of Miles as an innovator. The second – reviewed below in detail, if you are interested – was recorded just a couple of months before Miles died in 1991. It was the first time he had revisited the music created with his early partner, Gil Evans, in almost forty years. The music from Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess features prominently in his touching final performance.